Watch NASA's Asteroid-Deflecting DART Spacecraft Speeding Through Space

Astronomers have captured images of NASA's asteroid-deflecting DART mission as it flies through space.

DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) is the world's first full-scale mission to test technology for defending Earth against a potential asteroid or comet impact.

The mission launched on Wednesday at 1:21 a.m. ET from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

DART's aim is to demonstrate that a spacecraft can deflect an object that may pose a threat to the Earth.

To do this, the DART spacecraft will deliberately crash into a 530-foot-wide asteroid called Dimorphos in September 2022 at a speed of nearly 15,000 miles per hour.

The goal is to slightly alter the asteroid's motion in a way that can be accurately measured by ground-based telescopes. The test will provide important data that will help scientists to prepare for potential future hazards.

Dimorphos is a moonlet of the larger asteroid Didymos, which measures roughly 2,560 feet in diameter.

Shortly after the launch—at 2:17 a.m. ET on Wednesday—the DART spacecraft separated from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

And about 10 hours after launch, astronomers from the Virtual Telescope Project (VTP) managed to image the spacecraft and the second stage booster trailing behind as they zoomed through space.

Gianluca Masi, founder of VTP, took the images using a remotely operated, robotic telescope based in Ceccano, Italy. At the time, DART was located around 93,000 miles from Earth—less than half the average distance between our planet and the moon.

In the animation, the DART spacecraft and the SpaceX booster appear as tiny bright, white dots against a background of distant stars. The booster was spinning rapidly at the time, which is why its brightness appears to vary.

"Capturing all this was not straightforward: the spacecraft was only visible for
a limited interval of time, soon after sunset, under a still bright sky and very
low altitude above the western horizon—the worst direction because of the
evening twilight," Masi told Newsweek.

"My robotic telescopes have the right technology and many years of experience
provide the right confidence to handle these things, that helped a lot. I must admit I was very excited to personally spot DART and its second stage booster, knowing what they will do to learn how to mitigate an asteroid impact hazard in the future."

Soon after the spacecraft had separated from the rocket booster, it successfully unfurled its two 28-foot-long, roll-out solar arrays, which will power the spacecraft on its journey to Dimorphos. This asteroid does not pose a threat to the Earth but will simply used to test the so-called "kinetic impactor" technology.

"DART is turning science fiction into science fact and is a testament to NASA's proactivity and innovation for the benefit of all," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement following the launch.

"In addition to all the ways NASA studies our universe and our home planet, we're also working to protect that home, and this test will help prove out one viable way to protect our planet from a hazardous asteroid should one ever be discovered that is headed toward Earth."

NASA's DART mission
This illustration shows the DART spacecraft prior to impact at the Didymos binary system. NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben